Online Teaching Tools and Strategies

The novel coronavirus pandemic upended standard operating procedures in universities all over the world. One major shift was the sudden widespread adoption of remote learning.

A 2017 report on distance learning by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that 33.7% of enrolled undergraduate and graduate students — about 6.6 million — took at least one course online. That meant millions of students and teachers had a lot of catching up to do when universities nationwide ended most classroom activity in mid-March. As of early April, according to EducationData.org, the shift to online classwork due to COVID-19 affected more than 3,000 colleges and universities and 22.3 million students.

Educators with little or no experience outside the traditional classroom setting were forced to learn quickly about online teaching. Students who enrolled for in-person instruction had to break out their laptops and tablets to attend classes virtually.

The verdict so far? Incomplete.  

According to an April survey of educators by the Chronicle of Higher Education, about 67% of universities planned to offer some form of in-person classroom teaching this fall. The other 33% planned to offer exclusively online or a hybrid of in-person and online courses — or were waiting to decide.

Fortunately for those who wish to improve the experience of distance learning, there is no shortage of free or inexpensive online teaching tools available to help ease the transition.

What follows is an overview of online teaching tools for teachers that were in widespread use before the pandemic and could be particularly useful for educators still trying to figure out the best way to implement remote learning.

What Does It Mean to Move to an Online Classroom?

The adjustment to teaching with an online classroom is not as simple as taking what works in the in-person environment and doing those things on camera. Successful distance learning requires a teacher to rethink how to interact with students, how to keep them engaged, and how often to present lectures — all the while making sure that the technology in use is accessible and simple to understand.

Most of all, it requires that teachers understand what the online classroom looks, feels, and sounds like.

What Is an Online Classroom?

Man using computer for group conferenceThe structure of online classrooms varies based on course type, the technology available, the software being used, and the goals of the course. In most cases, an online classroom will be a mixed-media environment, with some combination of written material, video, audio, and interactive coursework.

Instructors administer most online courses using a learning management system (LMS), which is a virtual portal used to share course information and to communicate. By 2015, according to education IT publication Educause, 99% of colleges and universities were utilizing an LMS. The LMS is housed online or downloaded directly with a desktop or laptop computer or a mobile device (smartphone or tablet).

Depending on how the course is structured, lectures and classroom sessions might occur live or via recordings. Most online classes are asynchronous, meaning students attend different sessions throughout the day. Students might be required to log in at specific times, or they might have flexible login times.

Assignments, quizzes, and exams are administered through the LMS by uploaded documents or interactive forms. Some portals include private chat rooms for students to interact, and some teachers build in virtual “office hours,” indicating their availability to chat or videoconference directly with students.

Establishing Goals for Online Faculty

No matter the medium, the No. 1 goal of teaching remains the same: to help students gain a deeper understanding of a particular subject or a specific aspect of that subject. That doesn’t change in a virtual classroom.

What changes are the methods used to meet that overarching goal and incremental goals along the way. The use of online technology to replace in-person interaction requires a significant shift in approach and a bit of thought about the communication structure. For instance:

  •       How do faculty members engage with students in an online environment?
  •       What does “attendance” look like?
  •       Does a student’s success depend on attendance?
  •       How are grades based on participation and group work determined?
  •       How will students interact with each other outside of the formal classroom setting?

Educators need to answer these and other questions before week-to-week goals and expectations are established. It might help to think about how the incremental goals and expectations related to the in-person classroom translate to an online setting and adjust accordingly.

What Makes an Online Classroom Effective?

What are realistic expectations in an online environment versus an in-person environment, and how can the classroom be structured to help students meet those expectations? These are questions about balance — between technology and human connection, and between old expectations and new ones.

There is little debate about what success looks like in an in-person classroom. Generations of teachers and students shaped the benchmarks. Online learning, on the other hand, continues to evolve as technology improves and attitudes shift.

Is there a middle ground between traditional teaching methods and online techniques? What does success look like in an online classroom?

Tips for Effective Online Teaching

Online lecturing graphicTo help teachers understand what it takes to be successful online educators, the Chronicle of Higher Education published “How to Be a Better Online Teacher.” The advice guide includes tips such as:

  •       Communicate all expectations clearly and early in the term.
  •       Make yourself available to communicate with students at specific times and stick to that schedule.
  •       Express your personality through written words and video.
  •       Try to think like a student when organizing course materials.

Teachers should also provide regular feedback, especially if students are new to online learning. In addition to being academically useful, ongoing feedback is another way teachers can add a personal touch to the learning process.

Given time, patience, a bit of planning, and an enthusiastic acceptance of emerging technology, the teaching techniques that work in an in-person classroom setting can translate to online education.

How to Increase Online Student Participation

One of the biggest challenges for online educators is figuring out how to keep students engaged and to encourage participation. Here’s a start: Use an LMS designed to make it simple for students to access lessons and other course material, as well as to communicate with one another and professors.

Yet, even the most robust LMS is only as effective as the people using it. Here are a few tips from online publication Faculty Focus to help teachers drive engagement in the online classroom:

  •       Use real-time interaction such as chats and videoconferencing.
  •       Use discussion boards to pose interesting questions related to the coursework.
  •       Establish and maintain virtual office hours.
  •       Use multiple channels to communicate, including social media and approved email.

University staff must consider privacy issues and the terms of service established by the LMS or communication platform. Rules and guidelines must be established and communicated clearly to protect users from abuse.

Establish technology requirements at the start of each course. A student without a reliable internet connection is a disengaged student. Work with the school or department’s IT people to make sure that the LMS supports all types of devices and browsers.

Tools and Software for Online Teaching

The education industry offers a variety of inexpensive or free online learning tools to help teachers encourage participation, collaboration, and easy information sharing. Some of these tools enable easy video communication, while others give educators the ability to produce creative assets that catch students’ attention.

Below is a list of these tools, along with a brief description of how each one can help educators create a more effective online classroom:

Zoom

Downloads of the Zoom software reportedly increased by 1,330% from February to March as businesses and schools moved most interaction online. This multiparty videoconferencing platform is free to use in its basic account, with upgrades available at a relatively low cost.

It’s great for live conferencing, and users can implement password protection for conferences. Zoom moved quickly to improve its security when uninvited hackers began to disrupt classrooms and business meetings in the early days of the pandemic. These security enhancements thwarted most “Zoom bombers.”

Kahoot

Kahoot is a free online learning tool for teachers; it furnishes learning apps and study guides that incorporate gamification into teaching. It also allows users to work together to create their own learning apps. Teachers can use Kahoot to encourage collaboration and fun engagement. They can also use it to conduct surveys and to ask discussion questions. Teachers grant access to students using a personalized PIN.

Participate

Participate is an online collaboration tool designed for adult learning. It’s billed as a social media platform combined with an LMS, with customizable pages to enable communication, information sharing, project collaboration, and more.

Skype

Skype is a videoconferencing platform that allows for real-time communication in a virtual face-to-face format. It’s free to use and enables one-on-one conversation with and without video, real-time collaboration, guest speakers, and more.

Skype in the Classroom is an additional free service that provides activity plans, access to special live events, and other resources for educators.

Prezi

Prezi is a web-based tool for the creation of presentations. It’s similar to Microsoft PowerPoint — without the slides.

Prezi uses animation to zoom in and out on the screen and create a narrative flow. Its basic version is free. More features created for students and educators are available with a discounted monthly prescription.

Google Docs

Google’s free file-sharing platform allows for collaboration on projects. Multiple users can simultaneously edit a shared file, and the auto-save feature records all versions of it. The document creator can limit access to a file to specific users.

Google Docs is compatible with the entire suite of Google tools, including Google Drive, calendar, and Gmail.

Pixlr

While not as versatile as Adobe Photoshop, the Pixlr photo-editing suite has the advantage of being free. Users can quickly crop, enhance, and otherwise spruce up images for presentations. It’s a functional and convenient alternative to expensive photo-editing software.

Campus Press

As a WordPress product, Campus Press has the advantage of a familiar user interface and compatibility with most of the top LMS providers. It offers a variety of plug-ins to customize the learning experience, including platforms for student-driven projects and blog posts.

What's Next for Online Teaching?

Online learning was gaining gradual acceptance prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic.  

According to a 2019 distance learning survey conducted by nonprofit publication Educause, 73% of faculty members surveyed said they preferred a “completely or mostly face-to-face” teaching environment, while only 9% preferred to teach “mostly or completely online.”

However, 51% of respondents said they favored a teaching environment blending online and in-person elements.

The sudden switch to online classrooms in March might have created a sense of culture shock among some teachers and students. Nevertheless, distance learning appears to be here to stay.

The transition to remote classrooms need not be overwhelming. The online learning tools available can help smooth the journey for teachers and students alike.

Circa Interactive’s team of online learning experts is here to help you meet your enrollment goals as the higher education industry adjusts to the post-pandemic environment. Please contact us or visit our education technology page if you have any questions.

Bill Timpe
Bill Timpe is the director of project management and technical operations at Circa Interactive. He leads the account and project teams while ensuring top-notch project execution and client delivery for partners such as Harvard Kennedy School and Tulane University. Bill graduated from California State University, Chico, and took an e-commerce-focused position at Sony Store Online, where he expanded his knowledge on user trends and online marketing concepts before joining Circa in 2017.
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